Performance or Art? Absent at Shoreditch Town Hall

Review: Absent at Shoreditch Town Hall

Power-walking down Old Street through a bucketing downpour, our relief upon spying the entrance to Shoreditch Town Hall Hotel quickly turns to despair on our inability to discover any kind of entrance to Shoreditch Town Hall “proper”, where dreamthinkspeak’s promenade performance is currently taking place. Running into dead end after dead end (one of the evening’s ongoing themes), we finally decide to “ask at the hotel”. Approaching the beaming team of porters to explain that we are “looking for the theatre” we are, to our bemusement, asked to “check in” at the desk before waiting in the hotel bar to be taken for our “viewing”. Hang on, wasn’t the bar on the other side of the hotel entrance? Oh well, happily ensconced on dry seats, wineglasses in hand, we think little of it – or, for that matter, of the rather unusual headlines we spot in the Evening Standard lying on the tabletop. Despite the slight tardiness of our arrival, we are left to our own devices for a surprisingly long time, before being ushered back into reception to wait for another few minutes, surrounded by promotional material trumpeting the hotel’s room rates and plans for refurbishment, and wall-to-wall screens from which TV broadcasts clamour with, coincidentally enough, news of the latest schemes for the redevelopment of Shoreditch, until, finally, another uniformed porter arrives to accompany us into the basement.

Only then (yes, somewhat shamefully, only then), on being escorted into a perfect-down-to-the-shade-of-the-runner replica of a budget hotel room, does all become clear – this is immersive theatre, and the performance began the moment we walked through that door.

dreamthinkspeak is renowned for its “site responsive” performances, and promises to take us on a “multi-layered journey mixing film, installation and a haunting soundscape to create an increasingly labyrinthine dream world that merges past, present and future”. The production is loosely based around a reimagining of the story of the Duchess of Argyll, who was evicted from the London hotel she called home in 1990, having run out of friends and credit. Here, our duchess is a victim of the regeneration and homogenisation of 21st century East London outlined in those news reports set to haunt us throughout our journey into the depths of East London itself.

Tipping sharply toward the “art” side of the “performance art” balance, Absent is a Marmite production, its title having rather greater significance than you might at first think. SPOILER: Aside from an initial glimpse of the duchess grappling with her ultimate demise (along with a bottle of whisky), and the porters, who lurk ominously around certain corners and appear at sporadic intervals bearing torches and inscrutable expressions, there is no live action. And, as ingenious as dreamthinkspeak’s transformation of the space may be, I can’t help but wish for a little more “performance” to bring it to life. The final “reveal” still gets me, admittedly (I’m a sucker for a one-eyed teddy), but, on walking through that final door to be met by another set of beaming porters ushering us out, I’m left longing for more.

Make up your own mind. Absent runs until Sunday 25th October at Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT. 

Samantha Simmonds


Image Source: The Guardian